For a quarter-century, lawyers for Baltimore foster children have been telling a judge horrific stories of abuse and neglect and indifference. The child welfare system itself, the attorneys said, failed these children time and again by shrugging off reforms it was ordered to make as a result of a federal lawsuit.
That has changed, the lawyers said Tuesday. Convinced that the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees child welfare and the city's more than 5,000 foster children, has finally made enough progress on changes first ordered by a judge in 1988, the lawyers on Monday filed a motion that could eventually end federal court oversight.
"This is a milestone," Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald said.
Secretary since January 2007, Donald said she looked at the compliance requirements of the lawsuit she inherited and said, "These are the things we are supposed to be doing anyway."
The lawsuit was filed in 1984 on behalf of L.J., a boy who the lawyers said was beaten in his foster home until he had scars on "virtually every part of his body." His foster mother had been treated 41 times for alcoholism. Though L.J. is now in his mid-30s and Donald is more than half a dozen secretaries removed from Ruth Massinga, the case is known as L.J. vs. Massinga.
Over the decades, the suit expanded to include other children mistreated while under the state's care: Briana, a teen with learning disabilities, spent 42 nights in 2005 sleeping with other wards of the state at a Gay Street office building, with little access to showers or clean clothes. Stephen, a 14-year-old with untreated emotional problems, ran away from a group home to West Virgina in 2006, threatening suicide with his grandfather's gun.
The state entered a consent decree in 1988 and was supposed to be in compliance by September 1990. But the city's child welfare agency, the Department of Social Services, did not follow though on many of the court-ordered reforms, including reducing the staggering caseload of social services employees and conducting criminal background checks on foster parents.
A 2002 state legislative audit of foster care suggested the department simply ignored much of the consent decree. The audit of a sample 163 cases, most of them from Baltimore, found that children frequently were not receiving medical or dental care. Many were not enrolled in school. Case workers weren't visiting children as often as the law required to ensure their safety.
State officials promised change year after year, but shocking cases of children neglected by the state kept making headlines. In December 2002, Ciara Jobes, 15, was starved and tortured to death by her guardian, a mentally ill woman approved by city social services. Barely a month later, in January 2003, Travon Morris, 5, was fatally scalded in bath water by his mother, who regained custody after social services workers removed him from a safe foster home.
In November 2007, Mitchell Y. Mirviss, a lawyer for the foster children, asked the judge to hold the state in contempt of court, alleging 96 violations of the consent decree - everything from failing to train foster parents to neglecting children's dental needs. A 419-page memo accompanying the motion included stories of Briana, Stephen and a dozen other children under state supervision.
Mirviss has been involved in the case since 1985 and was skeptical anything would ever change. The system, he said in April 2008, has "a 20-year record of failure."
But Mirviss, an attorney with Venable who has largely worked pro bono on the case, and co-counsel Rhonda B. Lipkin of the Public Justice Center, say the system is on the road to recovery. That 2007 contempt motion eventually prompted the mediation that led to Monday's filing of the exit strategy.
A federal court hearing on the new filing will be held Aug. 5. U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, who has overseen the case in recent years, must accept the plan that the plaintiffs' attorneys and the state have developed.
To end federal oversight, the state must comply for 18 months with 40 measurable "exit standards" that fulfill larger goals in areas such as family preservation, child healthcare and education. The plan calls for a renovation of case practice, meaning the workers in contact with children and families - as well as supervisors - will likely need new training and coaching.
Matthew Joseph, director of the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth, said the fact that Mirviss and Lipkin - longtime child advocates - signed onto the plan "tells us this is a good deal for children. They would not have agreed to anything less."
Joseph said improving the quality of work done by case workers and their supervisors will be the biggest challenge for the agency. He said that how quickly social services undertakes that particular reform will indicate its chances of getting out from federal compliance.
"That's what could lead to a transformation in the kinds of services families see," Joseph said.
Donald pointed to the department's recently implemented "Place Matters" strategy, which emphasizes moving children in need to permanent homes as quickly as possible, as evidence of commitment to change.
The plaintiffs' attorneys said their good relationship with Donald and her city social services director, Molly McGrath, motivated them to hammer out a deal in court. "They have a tremendous commitment to reform," Mirviss said. "That's something we have never seen before."
Donald said she looks forward to the day when L.J. v. Massinga is closed. "No secretary wants to have a lawsuit over her head," she said. "We want to prove we can do it, that we can be trusted. We should be able to manage our own child welfare system," without the federal courts keeping watch.
Mirviss said he, too, wants the department to succeed with the new plan. "No consent decree is permanent," he said. "They are supposed to be lifted."
L.J. v. Massinga
December 1984: : Case filed in U.S. District Court.
September 1988: : Department of Human Resources enters consent decree, agreeing to sweeping reforms.
May 2002: : State legislative audit provides first reliable data showing ongoing problems with child welfare.
Nov. 5, 2007: : Motion asks judge to hold DHR in contempt of court for failing to uphold consent decree.
September 2008: : DHR and attorneys for foster children begin mediation on the contempt motion.
June 22, 2009: : DHR and foster children's attorneys file motion asking for a new consent decree, which provides a road map to the end of federal oversight.